Brownsville jurors shown cash and safe as Border Patrol agent's murder trial continues

Hoping to bolster their murder case against Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna, prosecutors showed jurors a safe they say he used to store $90,000 in smuggled money.

Chief Prosecutor Gus Garza examines a safe and cash seized from Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna's mother-in-law's home during Luna's trial for murder on Jan. 20, 2017, in Brownsville.

BROWNSVILLE — Prosecutors hauled a big black safe and $90,000 in cash into a South Texas courtroom Friday to bolster their assertion that Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna used thousands of dollars in money smuggled from Mexico and participated in a criminal enterprise that took the life of a would-be snitch.

Taking the stand for a third day, Joel’s brother Fernando calmly told them he’d seen that same black safe inside his brother's house with a similar amount of cash in it sometime after the murder of Franky Palacios in March of 2015. 

“You have seen money in the safe?” Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Gus Garza asked Fernando. He responded “Sí” in his native Spanish.

“It was neatly stacked?” Garza asked.

“Yes it was in order,” Fernando responded, speaking through a translator. “It was organized.” When asked the origin of the money inside the safe  — Fernando said it was from cash he smuggled into Texas from Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen. Smuggled money also was used to obtain houses for Joel’s two brothers.

Garza tried to get Fernando to say it was “drug money,” but Fernando said he only knew that the youngest Luna brother, Eduardo, obtained the cash across the Rio Grande, in Mexico. Eduardo, said in court records to be a Gulf Cartel “comandante,” is on trial for murder and drug trafficking along with brother Joel. On cross examination, Fernando acknowledged that Eduardo hid his money smuggling activities from Joel. 

Fernando Luna was charged along with his two brothers and two other defendants, but he took a plea deal and is now testifying against his younger siblings.

Fernando has already told jurors that it was Eduardo — not Joel, the federal agent — who shot Palacios in the head and then dumped his body off of South Padre Island.  In this first week of the trial, prosecutors have not directly tied Joel to the murder but are working to make the case that he was involved in a criminal enterprise that Palacios jeopardized when he threatened to snitch on the Luna brothers. 

The safe is the state’s most damaging evidence against the Border Patrol agent. Investigators seized it from his mother-in-law’s house. Testimony and court records indicate the safe was moved from Joel’s house to that location, an assertion that remains unproven, according to the federal agent's lawyer, Carlos A. Garcia.

Inside the safe, investigator retrieved nearly $90,000 in cash, more than a kilo of cocaine, ammunition, Joel’s commemorative Border Patrol badge and the password to his workstation at the federal agency.

The capital murder case began after a decapitated body turned up in Laguna Madre Bay, just off South Padre Island, during the height of spring break in 2015. Robert Hannan of Sugar Land was out boating that day when he came across the corpse.

He briefly told the story to the jury, which was shown gruesome pictures of the headless body floating in the clear water.

“Did you find something unusual on that day?” Garza asked him.

“I did,” Hannan responded. “A naked body with no head.”

Hannan called authorities, who eventually identified the body as that of Franky Palacios, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who worked with Fernando and Eduardo Luna at a tire shop in Edinburg.

The trial resumes next week.